Prosthetic Noses, Red Wigs, and Whiteface… American Characters in Chinese Films

Hollywood’s never been too subtle when it comes to Asia.

Mickey Rooney, yellow-skinned, buck-toothed and slanty-eyed, howling “Horry Gorightry!!!” down the staircase yet again. Warner Oland, carefully quoting his ancient proverbs before smacking Number Two Son yet again. And what was that Long Duck Dong quote? Oh yes, of course, “No more yankie my wankie!”

And yet… as cringeworthy as it is, the same happens back here in China.

From the 50s to the 80s, the China-based caucasian pool was small. Some expats like Sidney Shapiro would occasionally act, but if you wanted a thespian, you needed more. Like a wig (red or blond), a prosthetic nose (long and hooked), some eye tape (not sure how this was done), and white makeup. Lots of white makeup.

Here are some of my favorite white-face moments from Chinese films. Although are they all really Chinese actors? Well, that’s for you to decide. Plenty more pictures below…

An American Pilot (一个美国飞行员, 1980)
Henry Epstein is on the run. He’s naive, hook-nosed, doused in skin-whitening creme, and about to be gutted by a pack of bloodthirsty Japs. Thank goodness for those sweet-hearted communist villagers.

While Henry looks a little Chinese, and speaks fluent Chinese, he’s obviously an American Jew — just look at his name! Plus, he doesn’t have the faintest idea what chopsticks are for.

Sanmao at School (三毛学生意, 1958)
What happens when a drunk Yankee sailor lurches into a hardworking Shanghai crowd, and punches every local in sight? Is there retribution? Jailtime?

If it’s the 1940s, there’s only a military cop with a bad dye job, a massively fake nose, and brutally pasty skin. “Getouttahere,” he says, waving his baton in the face of a helpless kowtowing Chinese cop. Arm in arm with the rowdy seaman, he walks off laughing loud.

The East is Red (东方红, 1964)
This is The Boss. His hair and eyebrows are dyed red, his shnoz peaks two inches long, and his pistol will crush any Chinaman who dares question his ways.

He may resemble a British lord out for a hunt, but this murderous foreign devil commands the “President Wilson” ship — he’s a Yank, for sure. And since it’s a Cultural Revolution ballet, he doesn’t just whip and shoot — he dances, too.

Death Ray on Coral Island (珊瑚岛上的死光, 1980)
China’s first sci-fi film goes all out with hand-drawn laser rays, cardboard robots, and fiendish Americans. The only thing all three have in common is the zero-budget. You can almost see the seams on the edges of this great nose.

“Is he white or Asian,” I asked several Chinese friends, separately. All of them said the same thing: “He’s white, of course.” Really?

Women’s Basketball Player No. 5 (女篮5号, 1957)
Americans only appear in one scene, but boy is it a classic: dirty white ballplayers, fouling honest Chinese sportsmen. These Yankee cheats are lit hard, shot in low angles, and grunt in monosyllables. Their fans? A dripping crowd of sweaty white animals.

It’s as greasy as anything from Touch of Evil or Ace in the Hole… awesome and gross.

Pride’s Deadly Fury (武林志, 1983)
Northern Chinese call Russians “Old Hairy,” and you can see why. These red-haired demon wrestlers mock and beat “the weak man of Asia,” until one good-hearted street vendor decides to take action.

One of China’s first post-liberation kung-fu films, Pride remains a kick-ass affair. But even better than the kung-fu was trying to work out whether these bulked-up boxers were really Russians. Maybe western Chinese? Either way, those have to be wigs… right?

Qixi (奇袭, 1960)
A drunk Yankee soldier rips at his Slim Jim, swigs at a bottle of whiskey, and is lured into bushes by the sound of a whistling bird. A bird that’s actually a bold communist soldier with a gun. Suckah!

As I watched this with Zhang Ayi, a woman in her 50s, she began to laugh so hard she had tears in her eyes. She ran behind the couch, ducked down, and began tweeting like a bird.

Did she think I’d really be fooled? She’s already convinced I’m retarded. And yet, listening to the English in this film, I’m not so shocked.

“Goddamn,” slurs an American in English, and then continues, “You know, yes, fire, fiiiiiire, eees dangerous. You want to die when you get out here? {incoherent mumbling for a long while} What? You want to die? You sumvabitch! Getouttahereyou!!!

In the end, though, us Yanks did make it out pretty well.

After all, this is how they played the Japanese….

But is this offensive? Or does it make perfect sense? Is it more excusable in China (where there were very few caucasians) than it did in the US at the time?

Sweet Movies and Wild Books /

8 Responses to Prosthetic Noses, Red Wigs, and Whiteface… American Characters in Chinese Films

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  4. Harland says:

    White people are horrible, I don’t see any problem with mocking them ruthlessly and whenever possible.

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